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World Autism Awareness Day

World Autism Awareness Day logo

Minister of Health, Environment, Youth, Sports and Culture

The Hon. Mark Scotland, JP

Message for World Autism Awareness Day, 2 April 2010

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, designated by the United Nations to highlight autism as a growing epidemic, to promote early diagnosis and intervention, and to build support for those with this complex neurological disorder.

The prevalence of autism has increased tenfold in the last decade and globally some 67 million people are affected. More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with diabetes, cancer and AIDS combined. In the United States the latest statistics showed such a marked increase in autistic children, that it prompted the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to call autism a national public health crisis. In the United Kingdom, the National Autistic Society estimates that more than half a million people have some form of autism.

Currently, we have no scientific data on autism in the Cayman Islands, but we know that autism is present here too. And while much still needs to be done in countering this syndrome, I am glad to report that our Health Services Authority (HSA) is already actively pursuing a national protocol for screening and referral. This will form the base for a multi-year study to determine local prevalence and track the effectiveness of intervention.

The HSA has also started an awareness campaign among public health nurses, pediatricians and private medical professionals, led by its in-house speech and language pathologist. Also, the Education Department's Early Intervention Programme focuses on increasing autism awareness among pre-school staff. This is further supported by private sector efforts from the Wellness Centre and the Special Needs Foundation.

But all this must go hand-in-hand with a greater public awareness. We need preschool teachers, parents, family and friends to be aware of autism's early signs; we must ensure that a concerned parent has access to trained screeners and that early assessments are available to all children.

We are dealing with a syndrome with an unknown cause and no known cure. As such, the urgency of this awareness drive is clear. Our only recourse is to build knowledge, and offer professional help and personal support to those living with autism. Without it, autism can be debilitating, robbing children of even the simple prospect of living an independent life one day.

For parents, daily life with an autistic child presents many unique challenges. Apart from juggling the need for hours of therapy with everyday demands, parents feel the stress of living with a child who struggles to communicate life's basic needs and emotions -- hunger, fatigue, sadness or happiness. Unfortunately, many parents have to take on this struggle alone as talking openly about autism is still largely a taboo in Cayman society simply because people misunderstand the causes. But, autistic children and their parents need our help and understanding.

So, as we observe World Autism Awareness Day, let us live up to its slogan of Compassion, Inclusion, Hope.

Learn about autism, talk about it, and educate your children so they can treat autistic classmates with kindness and empathy. Because, as a mother with an autistic child once said: "We should not be mourning for an imperfect child, but for an imperfect world. They are a gift. So we just need to find the skills to get them through this imperfect world."

For further information contact: Cornelia Oliver